This is a land of layer-cake sedimentary geology where ancient
sand dunes form massive cliffs and domes that range starkly
in color, from white to deep, brick red. Here, the great Colorado
and Green Rivers have sliced deep, broad canyons through the
yielding sandstone. Ephemeral streams have cut deep slot canyons
so narrow you can touch both sides with outstretched arms.
The pliant sedimentary rock has eroded into fantastic shapes, creating
formations like the San Rafael Reef, Comb Ridge and the Cockscomb.
Granite remnants of magma chambers have been uplifted through the
overlying sedimentary layers to form tall, isolated mountain ranges
such as the Henry Mountains. Farther north, bisected by the Green
River in Desolation Canyon, are the impossibly crenelated highs
and lows of the Book Cliffs and the plateaus that form their backdrop.
Despite its forbidding appearance, the wild lands of Utah are home
to an array of native wildlife species. Large mammals roam the landscape,
including mountain lions, pronghorn antelope, elk, bison and bighorn
sheep. The Utah wilderness hosts at least two dozen endangered or
sensitive wildlife species that require specialized desert habitat.
They include the Gila monster, chuckwalla and desert tortoise in
the hot southwest corner of the state and the bald eagle, peregrine
falcon and endangered fish species of the Colorado, Green and Virgin
Rivers. Scientists estimate that 180 of Utah's plant species are
currently classified as endangered, threatened or sensitive.
Wilderness and the Economy
Utah's wilderness offers more than biological value. Because of
its unique beauty and recreational opportunities, the state has
become a hot spot for tourism. Utah's economy is among the strongest
in the nation; technology and tourism are among the largest and
most important economic activities, far exceeding extractive industries
such as mining, oil and gas development, and timber production.
For example, where mining used to represent a major industry in
Utah, changes in Utah's mining industry are telling. Between 1981
and 1997, the number of Utahns employed in the mining industry plummeted
from 20,000 to just 8,100. In some rural counties, jobs in the industry
have all but disappeared.
Permanent protection for Utah's unique wild lands will help preserve
some of the state's most special landscapes, creating an even more
attractive place to live, work and vacation. Benefits to the economy
are not just in the tourism industry. Increasingly, high-tech firms
and other non-extractive industries are locating in Utah to take
advantage of its beautiful surroundings. Wilderness protection offers
direct benefits to some business sectors, such as outfitting and
guiding, which in some rural counties represent a major component
of the local economy.
Utah's Redrock country is a national treasure. Unfortunately this
magnificent landscape is at great risk from oil and gas exploration
and rampant abuse by off-road-vehicles. The solution to preserving
these wildlands is official wilderness designation by Congress.
America's Redrock Wilderness Act, which has been before Congress
since 1989, would give permanent protection to these lands. The
bill has met with extreme opposition from most of Utah's congressional
delegates and has not passed primarily because of their opposition.
Photo courtesy James Kay; used with permission.